In Surprised by Hope, Anglican theologian N.T. Wright rejects fundamentalism’s almost gleeful obsession with eternal torment, as well as he perceives to be the naïve overconfidence of universalism.
Wright briefly considers “conditional mortality,” reminding us that immortality is not a natural part of human existence — despite what many church doctrinal statements profess with hardly a second thought.
Wright points to 1 Timothy, where Paul teaches that only God is immortal. He could just as easily have mentioned John, who writes that only the person who does the will of God “lives forever” and that “whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Or Revelation, where the “lake of fire” is a metaphor for “second death.”
God can share immortality with anyone he wants. But as far as we’re concerned, it’s a gift and nothing more. Immortality is not something we possess by right or by nature.
In the end, however, Wright’s view of hell falls somewhere in between eternal conscious torment and conditional mortality. Which means that for him, hell is something other than a land of limitless second chances.
When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around.
For example, those who love money not only worship it; they begin to see others merely as a potential source of revenue or expense. And so they dehumanize themselves and others.
After death, [such people] become at least, by their own effective choice, beings that were once human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. With the death of that body… they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity…
These creatures still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some even feel for the hardened criminal.
Now…if you read the last Harry Potter book, this might sound familiar. After being “killed’ by Voldemort, Harry wakes in an ethereal King’s Cross. (Note that he’s “more than disembodied thought.” N.T. Wright would be pleased.)
Before long, Harry notices something on the ground:
Something furtive, shameful… curled on the ground, its skin raw and rough, flayed looking, and it lay shuddering under a seat where it had been left, unwanted, stuffed out of sight, struggling for breath.
When Harry asks Dumbledore (who meets him in the other-worldly King’s Cross) what the thing is, Dumbledore replies, “Something that is beyond our help.”
The strong implication being that the writhing creature is what’s left of Voldemort’s soul after being spliced so many times, thereby reduced to something less than fully human.
That, according to N.T. Wright, is the fate of those who persistently, knowingly reject God. They lose the image of God — the divine imprint. They cease to be human, but they do not cease to exist.
And THAT is a fate worse than death.
To his credit, Wright acknowledges that he has “wandered into territory that no one can claim to have mapped.”
But two things are worth noting. First, this sort of hell has little to do with those who act (or fail to act) out of ignorance. I suspect that N.T. Wright takes at face value Jesus’ statement in John 15: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin.” For Jesus, responsibility and knowledge go hand in hand.
Second, Wright leaves the door open to the possibility that all sorts of people we instinctively exclude from God’s favor might find themselves on the right side of the pearly gates in the end:
The description of the New Jerusalem in [Revelation] 21 and 22 is quite clear that some categories of people are ‘outside’… But then, just when we have in our minds a picture of two nice, tidy categories, the insiders and the outsiders, we find that the river of the water of life flows out of the city; that growing on either bank is the tree of life, not a single tree but a great many; and that ‘the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’ There is a great mystery here, and all our speaking about God’s eventual future must make room for it… God is always the God of surprises.
My guess is that while Wright himself is not a universalist, he hopes for something very close to universal salvation.
And that’s where I find myself. Whether you think books like Love Wins are inspired genius or heretical drivel (or something in between), we should all hope the universalists are right in the end.
Or at the very least, we should hope that God’s mercy extends way beyond our capacity to imagine.